Tea Party and the Right  
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What Awful Reality TV and Suburban Living Have to Do With the Tea Party's Lack of Empathy

The Tea Parties are partly a product of the suburbs, where social isolation leaves communication about social mores to reality TV. Is it any wonder the movement lacks empathy?

If there’s any one defining feature of the Tea Party, it’s a lack of empathy for their fellow Americans. Republican candidates know this about their base: more than their supposed love of Jesus or the Founding Fathers, more than any coherent principled conservativism, more even than the strong streak of bigotry running through the Tea Party is this gleeful “screw you” attitude. Therefore, the Republican primary has become a contest to see who can heap the most abuse on Americans Tea Partiers don’t identify with.

You have Herman Cain preening about making Muslims second-class citizens; Michele Bachmann attacking doctors and public health officials who would prevent cervical cancer in young women; Rick Perry crowing about his heavy execution rate (which includes a willingness to execute people who should have been acquitted or had mistrials); and Ron Paul drawing heavy applause from a debate audience for his belief that government should just let the uninsured die. Far from being concerned about misfortune befalling others, the Tea Party routinely supports the expansion of suffering.   

To help explain this phenomena, we might remember another signifying characteristic of the Tea Party: despite the enthusiasm for country music, Tea Partiers proliferate in suburban and exurban districts. The most right-wing districts in the country are also some of its most suburban. Michele Bachmann serves the 6th District of Minnesota, which is composed of the suburban area surrounding the north of Minneapolis/St. Paul. Steve King, known for his competing hatreds of immigrants and sexually active women, serves the 5th District of Iowa, built from the suburban sprawl between Omaha and Des Moines. Anti-health-care fanatic Joe Walsh represents Illinois’s 8th District, composed of the northern suburbs of Chicago. Joe Barton, known for apologizing to BP for the White House post-oil spill investigation, serves the 6th District in Texas, which encompasses the suburban sprawl south of the Dallas/Ft. Worth areas.  

There’s likely a connection between the lack of empathy and the suburban nature of the conservative base. Research shows people tend to be more bigoted  toward gays  and those of different races when they have no personal connection with those people. Suburbs are known for breeding social homogeneity that does shelter people from humanizing those who are a little different than them. Beyond that, suburbs make it harder to develop a well-connected social life altogether.  Without that, it’s difficult to keep your empathy muscles, aka your ability to look at others and feel a common humanity with them. If you don’t use empathy, you lose it.  

In the past half century or so, Americans have flocked to suburbs, attracted to the promise of large houses, quiet, and privacy levels that simply can’t be achieved in small towns and dense big cities. But the price of all those conveniences was the loss of a sense of community, as people left interconnected urban enclaves or small towns to the impersonal streets of the suburbs.   

While there’s a great deal of diversity of suburbs--some are iconoclastic and some are quite walkable--the average American suburb has been notable for decades for an isolating geography and culture. Your average suburban/exurban home is set away from its neighbors with no porch or sidewalks, and suburbanites enter and exit their homes in cars that are parked in garages, minimizing their exposure to anyone who might be walking by. Of course, walking is unlikely to begin with; unlike in small towns and dense big cities, there’s very little within walking distance, killing much reason for anyone but the occasional jogger to be out on the streets on foot. 

Many people living in suburbs have long commutes to and from work, minimizing the amount of time for after-work socializing. Through law and custom, suburbs discourage the proliferation of public spaces where people can congregate easily, unlike urban centers where bars, libraries and coffee shops that are a brief drive or walk away. When you have to drive 20 or 30 minutes to get to the bar to hang out with your buddies, it starts to seem that much easier just to watch the game at home.  

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